Scott Sumner  

Why I'm not a progressive

Kathleen Wynne is Wrong... The Best of Econlib: 2017 (con...

I am a utilitarian. Many (most?) utilitarians are progressives. So why am I not a progressive?

I recently ran across three news articles that help to explain my skepticism of progressivism. First I'll briefly summarize the key takeaways, and then I'll explain what I believe they tell us. Here is the New York Times on building infrastructure in New York:

The Times observed construction on site in Paris, which is building a project similar to the Second Avenue subway at one-sixth the cost.

The review found evidence for one of the issues cited by the M.T.A.: Because most countries have nationalized health care, projects abroad do not have to fund worker health insurance. That might explain a tenth of the cost differences, contractors said.

But the contractors said the other issues cited by the M.T.A. were challenges that all transit systems face. Density is the norm in cities where subway projects occur. Regulations are similar everywhere. All projects use the same equipment at the same prices. Land and other types of construction do not cost dramatically more in New York. Insurance costs more but is only a fraction of the budget. The M.T.A.'s stations have not been bigger (nor deeper) than is typical.

The Times article is very long and quite revealing. It seems there is massive corruption in New York, with contractors, unions and consultants basically just looting New York City's taxpayers.

Here is the NYT on social spending in various developed countries:

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 12.04.58 PM.png
For me, the takeaway is that US public spending on social programs is similar to the spending levels in places like Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, Ireland and Iceland. Notice that these countries don't have the sort of inequality that we see in America. And they have living standards comparable to countries with more public spending.

And here is the Economist, showing that America spends more money educating poor pupils than richer pupils:

Screen Shot 2017-12-29 at 2.11.35 PM.png
So what does any of this have to do with progressivism? I see the progressive worldview as being based on these assumptions:

1. America's "savage inequalities" can be addressed by spending lots of money on social programs.
2. American's education inequalities can be addressed by equalizing spending between poor and rich school districts.
3. America's poor infrastructure can be addressed by spending more money on infrastructure.

My view is that (at the current margin) more government spending does not solve these sorts of problems, it just ends up being wasted. Rather we should focus on boosting the efficiency of the economy. Education vouchers may not improve test scores (which is a poor measure of education quality in any case) but they do allow us to deliver the same lousy test scores at much lower cost. A Singapore type health insurance system would improve efficiency in health care, as would open borders for doctors and nurses. Privatizing infrastructure would allow New York to build 6 times as much subway for the exact same cost. For instance, the projects might be contracted out to a French firm, using French and Chinese workers. Removing zoning restrictions would boost living standards for low income Americans, by making housing more affordable.

Some progressives might respond "why not both?" My response to that is let's see where were are after improving efficiency. When New York can build subway lines at the same cost as Paris, then we can better evaluate how many more lines they need.

COMMENTS (25 to date)
TMC writes:

A cynic may think that progressives favor public spending because so much of it can be syphoned off.

ColoComment writes:

Scale it up:

And keep in mind that the numbers used in the report reflect only what the agencies chose to reveal per FOIA.

PS: if anyone knows what the "Presidio Trust" is and does in the context of national public policy, please enlighten.

Thaomas writes:

On infrastructure, do you support investing when NPV of the project is positive?

Does it not make sense to spend more, maybe considerably more, to educate students from disadvantaged homes than luckier kids?

Both of these seem to be consistent with utilitarianism, especially if one accepts declining marginal utility of consumption.

Nate writes:

I remember a long time ago seeing the grid of ideology with four ideologies (libertarian, conservative, liberal, and progressive) being divided by two factors: regulation of the economy and regulation of morals/personal behavior. I remember seeing that libertarians didn't want the government to regulate either, conservatives wanted regulation of morals, progressives wanted regulation of both, and liberals only wanted regulation of the economy. It never said what sense the regulations would entail. Discouraging gay marriage and encouraging it are both technically regulating morals.

I would say in that sense I am a progressive because I believe people should be nudged into monogamy and parenthood. I think the positive inter generational externalities justify it. As opposed to basic income (which to me is libertarian) I would prefer guaranteed jobs because I think people fundamentally have a need to feel useful and most want to be told what to do. I also think it helps transmit values to the next generation.

I disagree that progressives can't want to spend more and make things more efficient. Stupid environmental regulations making building take longer and more expensive? Fine lets do away with them yesterday! I don't think progressives should ignore market oriented research. I do agree that specific regulations should be overturned. I don't categorically love regulation and spending. I do think market power describes a lot more outcomes than market efficiency.

I also agree there is waste. But you can't point out public waste in a vacuum. It has to be compared to something. How much does the private sector waste? It is harder to know; its much easier to point out public waste. I for one do feel we need constant, more transparent, and quicker review of government projects. When libertarians say that every government agency/regulation/etc is destined to become corrupt and stray from intentions I say, "I agree, lets enact a political infrastructure that can better fix this!"

Hazel Meade writes:

I think a lot of progressives are simply naive about politics in a democracy. They believe that the political system actually works according an idealized vision in which voters elect representatives that work for the public good, every vote counts equally, and that money spent by the government genuinely reflects the desires and interests of the voters. They are generally ignorant of the levels of corruption in governance and the degree to which corrupt interests exploit that naivety to funnel public money into their own purse.

Most progressive I have met genuinely believe things like the notion that all it takes is for people to become politically active and vote for the right people to reform the system. Those who are aware of local corruption attribute it to insufficient political activism by voters - if only people would wake up and become active in local politics everyone would vote right and then the government would do what is in the public interest. They fail to see that the problems in governance are inherent to the system and that they are driven by the incentives that governments and politicians and interest groups are presented with - not insufficient awareness or participation by voters.

Finally, a lot of these corrupt interests will appeal to progressive rhetoric to find justification for enriching themselves. I.e. unions working on local construction projects will appeal to the idea of "jobs" and "good benefits" and so forth which workers are supposedly entitled to justify spending more money on infrastructure projects. They will also exploit tribal identities and so on. Progressives are often easy marks - school vouchers become bad because they undercut the teachers unions which is ipso facto bad because unions are good. And so forth.

Nathan Smith writes:

Re: "Does it not make sense to spend more, maybe considerably more, to educate students from disadvantaged homes than luckier kids?... It seem[s] to be consistent with utilitarianism, especially if one accepts declining marginal utility of consumption."

Possibly, but the opposite is at least as plausible. Educate the smart kids to the max and they'll make great companies and scientific discoveries that improve the lives of the poorest. One Norman Borlaug is worth more than a lot of special ed.

SG writes:


Presidio Trust oversees Golden Gate Park and the other national park areas in the Presidio of San Francisco

ColoComment writes:

@SG, yes, thanks, I had read that in the report. And I've read the "About" at its website.

But... why? Why is the Presidio managed by a separate agency that is accountable to... whom? What? Why not the GSA? Or solely by the NPS?

Its employees are treated as exceptions to the general federal employment rules & policies, and not compensated under the same GS policies as other fed employees. Why? Note the salary & bonus amounts on page 10 of the report. Why does this remind me of the deliberate isolation and insulation of the CFPB from usual oversight & accountability?

This is from the Trust's "Jobs" page:
"The Presidio Trust is a federal employer, and all Trust employees are federal employees. Trust employment policies and procedures are, however, somewhat different from most federal agencies. The Presidio Trust Act gives the Trust more authority to establish its own human resources policies and procedures. Employment with the Trust is in the excepted service, rather than the competitive service. Under the Trust's establishing legislation, the Trust is authorized to appoint, compensate, and terminate employees without regard to the provisions of Title 5 or other laws related to the appointment, compensation, and termination of federal employees. The Presidio Trust pays its employees based upon a pay banding system and does not have general schedule (GS) or wage grade (WG) positions."

Interesting that the two small European countries with lower government spending than the US (Luxembourg, just slightly lower, probably within the margin of error; and Switzerland, much lower) still have higher social spending.

Sebastian H writes:

I strongly suspect that if NYC transit projects could be run at even 1/3 the cost, we would spend the same amount of money but have 3 times the length in line extensions. If designed even remotely well, that could enormously benefit the usability of the subway and would lend huge amounts of support for subway projects (making them more likely)

Progressives who think of that as a virtuous cycle might want to consider it.

Thomas Sewell writes:


Regarding waste in private companies... it's much easier to quantify and minimize. If a company gets too inefficient, then another company comes along and under-prices it for the same work/product, because they can get it done without the unnecessary extra bloated expenses.

The reason it's such a huge deal in the public sector is that:
1. There is generally no or legally restricted competition. There is only one agency which is going to control X and no other options.
2. The incentives for those running that agency are to spend more and increase their bureaucratic empire. If they don't spend it, they may lose it from their budget next year.


I think you're missing the part of his point where they aren't spending more "to educate students from disadvantaged homes", instead the extra spending actually goes to various corrupt groups who are buddies with the politicians and bureaucrats. We'd believe the money was for educating the disadvantaged if that's what it was actually spent on.


One thing the public spending stats graph is hiding is that in real dollars or PPP it's minimizing what the U.S. is spending. We actually spend way more than most of those countries because the U.S. GDP per capita is so much higher that if you express it as a percent of GDP instead of actual real resources, it disguises the differences.

You probably know that already, but most of the public in the U.S. doesn't make the mental adjustment for different absolute wealth levels to notice how much more we are spending on everything.

Scott Sumner writes:

Thaomas, You said:

"Does it not make sense to spend more, maybe considerably more, to educate students from disadvantaged homes than luckier kids?"

Not in public schools.

shawn writes:

Please stop being a utilitarian.

john hare writes:

Perhaps relevant to the subway problems. I have recently been trying to get a fairly simple retaining wall project permitted. ($20k size)Permitting process locally requires all blueprints to be engineered. Two engineering companies have refused the project as it entails too much risk.

I have an engineering background mumble decades back and no degree. It took me about thirty minutes of cracking old books and pocket calculator to figure it out and a safety factor of four is well within budget. As far as we can tell, local firms get so much mandated zero risk, point and click work, that doing actual calculations is not worth their time. Point and click work is what we call 'engineering' that simply repeats the same sections and specs on thousands of jobs without having to do any serious calculations. 8"x16" footer with 2 #5 rebar is building code for a single story building for instance.

Result is that my client (potential client) is months in, losing ground to erosion that approaches his house, and is going to spend several grand for an engineered stamped blueprint. At the end of the day, if it gets done, he will have spent double what he should have and lost months of peace of mind.

This is a modest city in Florida, not NYC. To me, this is a form of corruption that is not legally actionable. I can't even blame the engineers for taking lucrative no risk, no effort work in preference to some risk and some effort work that doesn't pay any better.

Mark writes:


You could try arguing it’d be more useful for Scott to stop being a utilitarian than to keep being one... of course if Scott rejects utilitarianism, this argument immediately loses its appeal.

(This is a more a poor attempt at philosophical humor than a serious comment)

Scott Sumner writes:

John, A lot of these problems are ultimately due to our insane legal system.

Hazel Meade writes:

john hare,
I suspect this is why the "DIY" movement has so much momentum. In many cases, it's legal do a project yourself that it would be illegal to pay someone to do. You can therefore DIY projects for much cheaper than hiring someone else would be. But it's overall economically inefficient because we're not taking advantage of specialization and trade.

bill writes:

Excellent post.

Antischiff writes:

Dr. Sumner,

It sounds like you are saying you are a supply-sensitive progressive. Maybe you could call it smart progressivism? Perhaps you would have more influence if you used such a term. On the other hand, maybe too many libertarians and conservatives would cease reading you, just based on the label.

James writes:


You skipped a step.

Some progressives get a lot of satisfaction just from knowing that the government is spending money on public transit and education for children from poor households. A utilitarian analysis must take into consideration the satisfaction that progressives get from their awareness of these types of expenditures.

It might even be the case that the satisfaction progressives get from awareness of progressive policies is great enough to offset the objective shortcomings of these policies. You have to show that the objective costs of these policies are large enough to offset the emotional impacts, otherwise you are not really a utilitarian (which is fine so long as you are honest about it).

Also, if you are a utilitarian, your view on progressive policies would have to become favorable if enough people started to like progressive policies enough.

Your actual argument seems almost Rothbardian, where he critiques things like the minimum wage for failing to achieve their intended outcome without any evaluation of the merits of the intended outcome.

john hare writes:

Hazel Meade,

I have advised people on DIY projects that they could do that I can't do for them. And then in the permit office the other day I saw a sign advising people that it was illegal to advise people to do things outside the system, can't remember the exact wording. After the hurricane through our area, I saw signs around towns advising that in a disaster area it was a felony to do unlicensed work. It's almost a license to steal for some trades when supply is restricted during emergency high demand. My concrete crew could nail on shingles in an emergency, if it were legal.

Shoe on the other foot, unlicensed people do cost me some work and probably contribute to lower prices locally. Given a choice between strict enforcement creating more work and higher profits for my company, or reducing the requirements to help the consumers, I favor the later even at some cost to me. Though it might not cost us anything as more projects could be done in a timely and more cost effective manner.

Hazel Meade writes:

@john hare,

in the permit office the other day I saw a sign advising people that it was illegal to advise people to do things outside the system

Sounds like a freedom of speech case. Has anyone been prosecuted yet for advising someone to DIY a project instead of hiring a licensed contractor?

john hare writes:

Hazel Meade,

I haven't heard of anyone prosecuted for advising. I've heard of unlicensed contractors getting arrested. I don't go to the permit office often. I should go back to see if the wording covers them or not. I hadn't thought of the freedom of speech issue.

Mark Bahner writes:
When New York can build subway lines at the same cost as Paris, then we can better evaluate how many more lines they need.

Let's wait 10-20 years until autonomous vehicles provide more than 50 percent of all vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. I think we'll find that even Phase II of the Second Avenue subway won't be needed. (Which will be good, since it probably won't be completed.)

With autonomous vehicles, the desired departure and destination location and time will be known for every person traveling. That will allow incredibly efficient travel, with road capacities easily more than doubling or tripling, and door-to-door travel in NYC will become commonplace.

Scott writes:

Your comparison is to the efficiency of Paris, which is even more progressive than New York? I don't understand the comparison.

The Nordic countries have the highest standard of living in the world. One would have to explain that away to explain why progressivism doesn't work.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top